This was a fine victory against a bright, hard-working and hugely motivated Norwich side. Flashes of brilliance punctuated what was largely a competent, if at times slightly workmanlike, performance from Jason Wilcox’s u18s. In the end, though, City were deserved winners as they secured a place in the FA Youth Cup semi-finals. The first thirty-five minutes were sensational, blessed with beautifully intricate one-touch football that saw Norwich camped in their own half. There was a wonderful nuance and intelligence to the approach play and the Spanish trio of Sarmiento, Garcia and Brahim in particular caused all manner of problems down the left. Duhaney and Buckley were equally as effectively on the right, and it was the latter that should have put City ahead too. With barely 50 seconds on the clock Nmecha fed the young winger but he couldn’t quite beat the keeper after his pace had taken him free. Another chance swiftly followed. Some excellent play down the left from Sarmiento had seemingly given the young blues the lead, but it was ruled out as Nmecha was ruled to have put the ball in with his arm from close range.
The goal that their approach play had warranted finally came though, and it was a peach. Duhaney darted in field and sprayed a perfect 40 yard cross-field ball right onto Brahim’s chest. The diminutive Spaniard took it down perfectly, nutmegged one and coolly slotted past the onrushing keeper. Lovely stuff. Norwich, to their credit, weren’t content to lay down and die. They put in a strong shift either side of the half-time whistle, though they came up against a brick wall in the form of Tosin Adarabioyo and they were mainly limited to speculative long range efforts. The second goal was the killer and it came via the right foot of Manu Garcia. Some goal it was too. Fresh from collecting a winner’s medal from the Capital One Cup victory on Sunday, the midfielder turned infield and unleashed an absolute howitzer of a shot that rocketed into the net with the keeper stranded to the spot. There was further chances to extend the lead, with Nmecha notably wasting an opportunity during a late counter, but it remained 2-0 as City intelligently played out the night. It was a cool, composed win, and an admirable one too.
Brahim was magnificent. Not everything the 16 year old tried came off, and he did quieten a little in the second half as Norwich turned the screw, but his spatial awareness and exemplary technique were fully on show for the first hour. His goal was excellent, and there were countless times where he embarrassed his opposition defender with his ability to drop his shoulder and change direction within a millisecond. Garcia too had a strong game. Clearly buoyed by his first team efforts, he was a bundle of energy and like Brahim his pressing and commitment was heartening to witness. Add this to their obvious footballing nous and you have two hugely exciting prospects. Nmecha wasn’t at his very best, but he still showcased that hugely welcome habit he has of literally bouncing off defenders before spinning away and driving straight at the heart of their defence. He’s a handful to stop. The only surprise was that he didn’t grab a goal to show for his efforts. Buckley likewise wasn’t quite at his peak, but his pace still caused Norwich all manner of problems and he could’ve had a couple of goals on another day as he ran tirelessly throughout.
Kongolo carried on his recent fine run of form with a powerful, commanding midfield display. The Dutch midfielder has always been a big bloke, but he’s recently added an ability to link play between the defence and attack. He seems much more aware of what’s around him then he perhaps initially did when he joined the club, and it’ll stand him in good stead if he’s to have a long-term future at City. Davenport, as ever, was quietly impressive. The holding midfielder is a great little player. He does the dirty work that many wouldn’t notice. There were countless occasions where he’d simply be stood in the right place at the right time to intercept and nullify a Norwich attack before it happened. It’s a rare skill to have to read the game that well, and he has it. Duhaney had a fine game at right-back as he used all his speed, tenacity and vision to cause all manner of problems as he burst forward. His pass to Brahim for the first was brilliant, and it wasn’t a one-off either. Sarmiento had a mixed one, yet there was still flashes of his ability against a good Norwich team. Adarabioyo played the game exactly like you’d expect a young player to after he’d made his first team debut. He was clearly in his element and he made numerous smart blocks and strong challenges. Humphreys alongside swept up immaculately too.
Grimshaw had little to do in truth, and what he did have to do he dealt with perfectly. Credit must go to those in front of him – Davenport’s assured presence ahead of a confident centre-back pairing saw Norwich make little headway, and it bodes well for the semi-final. A trip to the Emirates or Anfield awaits, depending on the outcome of Liverpool and Arsenal’s quarter-final. City will most likely head into that game as favourites. They’ll be confident, and rightly so. This is a strong collective and a vibrant team full of ideas and excellent individuals. Oliver, Nemane and Wood were all introduced from the bench, and the likes of Patching, Dilrosun, Fernandes and Diallo weren’t involved altogether. It’s a hugely strong squad and the final should be the minimum requirement. The first thirty-five minutes of this game are the levels they have to strive to throughout the 90. They’re capable of it thankfully, and they’ll rightly fancy their chances of making it a second FA Youth Cup final in two years when the game comes around. Long before that however, the EDS play Norwich on Friday and the u18s take on Chelsea at home on Saturday. A game that will hopefully be streamed on Chelsea TV. A report, as ever, will follow here.